By Logan Schell
Stein, Daniel. Authorizing Superhero Comics: On the Evolution of a Popular Serial Genre. The Ohio State University Press, 2021.
As the superhero genre is an unignorable facet of comics, it is unsurprising to see additions to the body of literature on the genre. Even scholarship that does not directly deal with superheroes usually addresses the elephant in the room regarding the genre’s impact, even if it means dismissing it as foolish, crude, or problematic. Rather than focusing on formal or historical elements, Daniel Stein’s Authorizing Superhero Comics: On the Evolution of a Popular Serial Genre provides an important addition to the analysis of superhero comics by focusing on the relationship between readers and creators in legitimizing the genre.
Stein’s greatest achievement in this monograph is providing a framework for approaching superhero comics that is flexible and attentive to divergent forces. Eschewing a cause/effect model for looking at the creation of these popular stories, Stein, utilizing theories gleaned from the likes of philosopher Bruno Latour, analyzes the superhero genre in a more constellated manner. He sees serialized superhero comics as product of actors whose operations result in authorization tensions or conflicts. Such an approach has some immediate benefits. It shifts focus away from settling certain debates, such as who is responsible for the creation of Batman or Spider-Man, by instead making the debate itself the point of interest. Stein’s work makes special note of how the audience has a role in these authorization conflicts through their participation in letters and fan works. His stated purpose, as evidenced in the book’s subtitle, is to document the evolution of the genre, and this concept is recurrent throughout the book.
I do have some hesitancy regarding the application of an evolutionary or developmental model to genres, especially superheroes. Such a viewpoint, while it has its uses, can imply a kind of linear progression, where earlier entries, such as Golden Age stories, are deemed primitive while later works, often of a deconstructive nature, are seen as a metamorphosis into a superior form. While it is not inaccurate to view some aspects of earlier comics in this light, it does lead to a narrative that prioritizes the present and looks down on the past.
Stein’s style in this book is a balance between exploration of theory and application to specific examples. For instance, Stein uses scholars like Roland Barthes and his “The Death of the Author” to frame discussions of contested authorship in superhero origins. At times, these theoretical introductions can be difficult to work through when he draws from critical works like Foucault, Latour, and others, but once Stein gets to the meat of his examples from the comics that are the focus of the work, the argument he builds is compelling. Overall, the application of these complex theories adds much to Stein’s work. The included images, both textual and paratextual, are welcome additions. Although they are black and white, they all clearly flesh out relevant points to Stein’s argument. As comics is a visual medium, it is useful to provide such examples.
Stein begins his first chapter, “Negotiating Paratext,” by examining the tension between the author fictions present in Batman comics that concern who has the authority to define the iconic caped crusader. Settling the question of who definitively created these comics is not his primary concern; what is more interesting is the conversation between the authorized version given through the published magazines and the audience response: “If serial characters are driven by successive retellings of their origins, comics authorship is indebted to its own tales of conception” (42). Stein explores how Batman publications use supplemental information to create authorized versions of the creations of comics. Stein then examines fan responses and publications, highlighting how the tension between the creators and readers resulted in negotiated authority. The argument expands in the following chapter through an analysis of Marvel’s interconnected universe and the fandom it inspired. Again, tensions between corporate authorization and other actors in the network exist, whether between creators and their ownership of a popular character like Spider-Man or fans and their reactions to particular storytelling decisions. Here, Stein’s framework reveals its limitations. He states that “The storyworld being collectively constructed here enlists a number of builders” (125), but previously acknowledged that fan letters were a curated creation itself and that many were inventions of comics writers themselves (50). So, while Stein implies that fans may have played a role in tensions of building storyworlds, it is unclear to what extent this may have just been illusions of marketing at work. This observation does not negate Stein’s broader point. Authorizations of serial comics were certainly impacted by audience reception, but the degree to which this occurred appears to be an area worth exploring in further depth.
Chapter three turns the scope from authorizations of popular serial comics themselves to the unauthorized appearances of popular superheroes in parodies and spoofs. According to Stein, parodies like Mad are not just “subversive responses to official series by fans hijacking content to produce their own meanings . . . they act as mediators of genre evolution by making productive the willing suspension of disbelief that many superhero conventions . . . demand” (164). He thus sees parody operating in both centripetal and centrifugal fashion: that is, both normalizing the official versions and destabilizing them (165). Authorized parodies like Marvel’s Not Brand Echh and DC’s The Inferior Five allowed for major mainstream industry players to self-deprecate in ways that still affirmed the standard versions of established properties. However, in some cases, Stein maintains, parody can also act in a revisionary mode, highlighting how Alan Moore’s 1963 addresses social and racial issues underlying Marvel’s classic comics. I appreciate how Stein brings attention to the role of parody in critiquing social and corporate structures, but I also think it is important to remember comics have operated in a critical mode throughout their history, and not just through the deconstruction of Alan Moore. The following section discusses how collecting practices are authorized by official sources and by consumers. In curated collections or museum books like The Spider Man Vault: A Museum-in-a-BookÔ, publishers preserve artifacts in ways that allow them to construct a fiction of originality. In purchasing these books, readers participate in reinforcing the important moments of the past. Closing this chapter is a discussion of the challenges facing collecting comics in an increasingly digital world. Stein highlights how new authorization conflicts may now occur, such as between pirating websites and those who disapprove of such practices (267). I appreciate that Stein considers relevant, contemporary digital issues facing the medium and mentions fan sites like Comic Vine. Although a great part of his work concerns historical superhero comics, this consideration of comics in digital environments demonstrates that Stein is aware of how his theories apply to the present as well.
The book ends with a brief coda in which Stein considers how his framework of authorization tensions can apply to issues of race and gender representation in superhero comics. Here, the tensions described do not necessarily operate on an axis between the authoring creators and the readers but opposing political or social forces. Stein discusses superheroes as being understood as both progressive and oppressive in their content: “While they have been claimed as champions of a liberal and progressive America . . . they have also been recognized as agents of ‘racist myths of belonging’” (274-5). In support of this point, Stein uses a panel from Captain America that demonstrates unity and diversity to show how superhero comics “are as remarkable as they are problematic” through their caricaturized, stereotyped depictions (273). As opposed to seeing comics as belonging to either progressive or regressive voices, Stein’s proposes a nuanced approach: “A more complex argument, and one that is supported by the insights offered throughout this book, would be to multiply the human and nonhuman actors involved in the genre’s evolution and to approach this evolution through the lens of authorization conflicts” (275). Stein thus advocates for an appreciation of comics that also facilitates critique. I find this closing sentiment particularly attractive, as it allows for scholars to address issues or problems facing the genre without robbing these comics of their literary merits. Superhero stories are indeed complex and have much they can teach us. It is therefore important to utilize tools like those provided by Stein to both appreciate and critique these important narratives.
Overall, Authorizing Superhero Comics is admirable because it treats the subject material with scholarly weight without denigrating the genre or reducing it to problematic features. It is an academically thorough work that looks at but does not look down on superheroes, as some scholars may be tempted to do when dealing with aspirational, fantastical men and women in tights, nor does it fall prey to the opposite pole and give empty praise to the genre by ignoring issues of representation or corporate malfeasance. Instead, Stein utilizes his authorization network framework to encourage a more wholistic, multifaceted view of these serial stories. As such, Stein’s book is a worthwhile addition for those who wish to give superheroes the scholarly attention they deserve.